In every sport, there are upsets so profoundly shocking that they become the benchmark for any future surprise result. Boxing has Mike Tyson losing to Buster Douglas, rugby union has Japan’s defeat of South Africa, while football in 2016 added Leicester winning the Premier League to its canon.
Nadal was considered unbeatable at the French Open where he never lost a match and prowled the baseline like a predator mercilessly defending his territory. Aged 22, he was already a four-time Roland Garros champion, and had not dropped so much as a set in his previous 10 matches there.
Coming into the fourth round match against Soderling, Nadal looked set fair for a fifth straight title. He had cruised through his first three matches – taking his win-loss record in Paris to 31-0 – including a demolition job of former world No 1 Lleyton Hewitt whom he had beaten for the loss of just five games. In January, Nadal had won his first hard-court major at the Australian Open, and he had completely dominated the start of the clay-court season by winning the titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome.
When the players took to the Phillipe Chatrier court on a cloudy Parisian afternoon, no-one gave Soderling a hope of upsetting the King of Clay in his unbreachable fortress.
Soderling though had two things in his favour. The first was a huge all or nothing game that meant he could beat anyone on his day, and the second was that he knew how to get under Nadal’s skin.
The Swede was something of an outsider in the locker room, and he revelled in antagonising his opponents, especially Nadal. The pair’s previous two meetings had been fractious, with Soderling angering Nadal and the Rome crowd a month earlier when he swore at the umpire over a disputed line call despite it being himself who had clearly pointed to the wrong mark on the court.
The rivalry really intensified though at Wimbledon in 2007 when the two players’ third-round five-set match stretched over five days due to rain and became a tetchy and testy slugfest. Nadal was enraged at the constant delays, and Soderling sought to wind him up further, behaving like an annoying sibling who knew exactly what buttons to press.
He mimicked Nadal’s habit of fiddling with his shorts and to poke fun at of how long Nadal took between points, he would deliberately stall the Spaniard and offer his hand in mock-apology. Taking to the role of pantomime villain perfectly, Soderling eschewed the tennis etiquette of aplogising after a dead net cord, and instead celebrated such a point in the fifth set with a fist pump. After the match he said: “Why should I say I’m sorry when it’s the happiest moment of my life?”
The handshake at the end of the match was frostier than the unseasonally cold temperatures at SW19, and Nadal pulled no punches in his post-match interview. “I have said hello to him seven times to his face, and he has never said hello to me,” he said. “I asked around the locker room; almost nobody had anything nice to say about him.”
Soderling responded: “Personally, if I have a problem with a player I go and talk to him face-to-face.” Of his reputation as a loner, he added: “Do I have any friends on tour? Not many. I used to hang around with other Swedes, but there are fewer now.”
In the highly sanitised world of the ATP Tour where everyone seemed to get along, this was genuine needle and made for an intriguing pre-match sub-plot.
But despite Nadal’s open distaste for his opponent, there was little to suggest that he would have too many problems in beating Soderling.
As well as his formidable record at Roland Garros and on clay in general, Nadal had won all three of his previous matches against Soderling, and hammered him 6-1, 6-0 in that Rome meeting a month earlier.
Soderling, the world No 25, had been having a mixed year and had gone out early in all of the clay-court tournaments leading up to the French Open. Once in Paris though, he began to play with more authority and took out the 14th seed David Ferrer in four sets to reach the last 16 – his first fourth-round appearance at a major.
In the first set against Nadal, Soderling was, to use tennis parlance, red lining. Nadal looked utterly powerless, failing to get a grip in the match as if he was being tossed around in a washing machine.
Soderling’s forehand was an inelegant slap that could often go awry, but suddenly he could not miss with it and he was sending Nadal so far behind the baseline that he was almost in Belgium. Nadal was left floundering in an opening set that went the Swede’s way 6-2.
When you watch the match back, one of the striking things is how loud and desperate Nadal’s grunting quickly becomes. He sounds almost strangled by the exertion of what he’s up against and the shock of getting so badly beaten up on his favourite court.
Nadal took the second set on a tie-break, but still something was not right. The Spaniard’s snarl had become an anxious furrowed brow, and Soderling was feeding off his tension. The more Nadal hoped his rival would take a backwards step, the more Soderling went for the jugular – battering down aces and big forehands, and picking off volleys at the net like a Scandinavian Pete Sampras.
Nadal began to look frazzled, with his sweat-drenched hair creeping down into his narrowed eyes. In the seventh game of the third set, Soderling screamed a backhand at Nadal to earn a crucial break of serve. Shortly after Nadal collapsed to the floor like a giant tree felled by a lumberjack as he lost his footing hitting a backhand. The symbolism of the fall was obvious, and John McEnroe remarked in commentary: “He just doesn’t know what to do out there.”
Soderling took the set 6-4 to leave Nadal on the brink of elimination. The Spaniard though did not give up – his ferocious competitiveness never left him and he took an early break in the fourth set to regain a semblance of control.
It would prove to be an illusion however, as Soderling broke back and took the fourth set on a tie-break to win the match. The crowd, desperate for a Roger Federer win at the tournament, had been resolutely in favour of Soderling throughout the match and roared their approval at seeing Nadal finally beaten at Roland Garros.
The tennis world scrambled around for an explanation, and they received one of sorts a few weeks later when Nadal pulled out of Wimbledon due to tendonitis in both knees. It would later emerge that the Spaniard was also suffering severe distress from the divorce of his parents.
But it is too easy to attribute the defeat to one or both of these factors. Yes, they may have contributed but Nadal had still been in sensational form at the time, and it took a player with the courage and self-belief of Soderling to take advantage. The way Soderling was playing that day – hitting 61 winners to Nadal’s 33 – he would have beaten Rafa at any stage of his career.
The scale of the shock was only added to in the subsequent years, as Nadal won the next five French Opens and his following 39 matches at Roland Garros, include a straight-sets win over Soderling in the 2010 final. Even now, nine years on Nadal has only been beaten once in Paris since the Soderling upset.
The victory was the launchpad for Soderling’s career, as he reached consecutive French Open finals and a career-high ranking of No 4. Sadly he was forced to retire in 2015 having not played since 2011 due to a severe and long-running bout of glandular fever.
Nadal of course quickly re-established himself as the King of Clay, and is currently playing some of the best tennis of his career as he targets a record 10th French Open title.
But he will never forget that Sunday in May eight years ago when he was dethroned so brutally by the player he disliked the most.
6. Andre Agassi defeats Andrei Medvedev 1–6, 2–6, 6–4, 6–3, 6–4 – 1999 Final
The story of Andre Agassi’s rise and fall and then rise again was like something out of a Hollywood script. The glamorous, exciting young Las Vegan with the mullet and neon spandex who had too much too young before plumbing the depths and taking crystal meth as his world crumbled around him. Then the rise from the ashes that saw a redeemed, more mature version of his younger self gain some much needed perspective and come back stronger than ever before.
The fall in 1997 had seen Agassi, shaken by his failed marriage to American actress Brooke Shields, plummet to a world ranking of 141 and fail a doping test (which was later dropped by the authorities when he claimed to have ingested crystal meth accidentally) .
By the time of the 1999 French Open, Agassi was back in the world’s top 20 after close to 18 months spent finding his feet again,but he was not yet considered a serious contender for grand slams, least of all the French Open, which he had never won.
But at Roland Garros that year, Agassi battled his way to the final – his first at a slam for almost four years. A win for the American would see him complete the career Grand Slam at the age of 29 and cap a remarkable turnaround from the dark days of two years before.
He had twice been a losing finalist in Paris, but was odds on to finally claim the title against the unfancied Ukrainian Andrei Medvedev, whose lowly ranking of 100 meant he only just made the cut for the tournament.
Medvedev though had been in sensational form in Paris, taking out Pete Sampras and former champion Gustavo Kuerten en route to the final. Ironically, it had been a chat with Agassi in Monte Carlo a few weeks earlier that had inspired the turnaround.
In his autobiography, Open, Agassi recalled how he had spotted Medvedev drinking alone in a Monte Carlo bar after another damaging defeat. The 24-year-old Medvedev told Agassi he was considering retiring – in his own words he was old and he couldn’t play “this f—ing game anymore.”
“How dare you,” Agassi responded. “Here I am, 29, injured, divorced, and you’re [complaining] about being washed up at 24? Your future is bright.”
Buoyed by the pep talk and by his blossoming romance with German player Anke Huber (they have subsequently split), Medvedev was a new player in Paris and his feather-light drop shots and clinical backhands down the line took him all the way to the final.
On the eve of the final, Agassi was racked by anxiety and shocked coach Brad Gilbert by necking a vodka from the hotel minibar to soothe his nerves. “He has my game,” Agassi fretted. “I gave it to him. He even has my first name.”
By the time the players took to the court, Agassi was still tormented with self-doubt, and he lost the first set 6-1 in 19 humiliating minutes. The second was scarcely much better, as Medvedev prevailed 6-2, with Agassi later describing his performance in the opening stages as “embarrassing”.
Midway through the second set though, a rain delay forced the players off court and prompted Gilbert to shake some sense into Agassi. Gilbert opened a locker and slammed it shut, before unleashing a volley of criticism at his player, where he told Agassi exactly what he was doing wrong and that at the very least he had to “go down with both guns blazing”.
Agassi belatedly got the message, and in the third set hauled himself from off the canvas. Serving at 4-4, 30-15 he double faulted on consecutive points to hand Medvedev a break point that had he taken would have left him serving for the match. The American saved it with a drop volley, and from there did not look back, coming to the net more and taking his opponent’s rhythm away from him.
After 2 hours and 42 minutes, Agassi secured the victory when a Medvedev forehand sailed long. He dropped his racket instantly, turned to his box and after covering his face began to cry uncontrollably. “Winning isn’t supposed to feel this good,” Agassi said. “But it does.”
Agassi had metamorphosed from hirsute teenager in denim shorts to balding elder statesman, and after his annus horribilis he had found the purest form of redemption.
5. Chris Evert defeats Martina Navratilova 6–3, 6–7(4), 7–5 – 1985 final
Sixteen years, 80 matches, and 60 finals. There has never been a rivalry like the one between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, and there were few contests between the two as riveting as the 1985 French Open final.
From 1974 to 1986, the two players duopolised the year-end world No 1 ranking, and had finished No 1 and No 2 in every year between 1982 and 1986. Between them they were the dominant forces in the sport, and by the time of the 1985 French Open final Evert had 16 singles slams to Navratilova’s 12.
Evert had initially dominated meetings between the two, winning 20 of their first 25 matches, but when they met at Roland Garros 22 years ago, Navratilova led the head to head 33-31 and was the world No 1.
The stats though don’t tell anything like the full story of a rivalry that in the public’s eyes pitted the charming American girl next door in Evert against the rugged, outspoken Czechoslovakian outsider in Navratilova. Evert later said this perception was totally wrong, explaining that people would often approach her and say, “You know, I never liked that Martina. She’s so tough.
“I’d say, ‘You know what? She’s a kitten. She really is. I’m the hard one.’ They’d say ‘no, no, no – not you. You’re so frail and feminine; we always felt sorry for you.’ It was as if Martina became the bully to some people. And I was the person who could silence the bully.”
The pair were actually great friends and had played doubles together in the mid-1970s until Evert felt that doing so gave Navratilova too good a read on her game. Navratilova would never forget the kindness Evert and her mother had shown her when she was starting out on the lonely grind of professional tennis. Evert had always liked and admired Navratilova, and was among the first to defend her when she was outed as a lesbian by a New York newspaper in 1981.
By the time of the 1985 French Open final, Navratilova, now 28, was at her formidable best and exercised a vice-like grip over the rest of the Tour – friends and foes.
She was the current holder of all four of the slams and had won a staggering nine of the previous 13 majors. Evert, now 30, had won the other four and was the world No 2, but anyone playing against Navratilova at that time was a major underdog.
Both players were in excellent form when they met in Paris. They had reached the final with contemptuous ease- neither had dropped a set, and Navratilova had dished out bagel sets to half of her opponents en route to meeting Evert.
The final proved to be one of the high points in a rivalry that transcended sport. In 2 hours 40 minutes of relentless tension and drama, Evert eventually won out in three epic sets. She had led by a set and a break, and served for the match in the second set but Navratilova had clung on.
It was a fascinating clash of styles, with Navratilova rushing to the net at every opportunity, and Evert doing all she could to find angles and lobs to outfox her opponent.
In the final set, Navratilova missed four break points on her opponent’s serve at 5-5 and then moments later found herself down championship point on her own serve. She saved it when Evert sent a lob just long, but it turned out to be a stay of execution as on the second one, the American somehow got to a Navratilova smash and screamed a backhand passing shot winner up the line.
Evert later described the win as her “most satisfying”, while reflecting on the pair’s rivalry, Navratilova said: “We brought out the best in each other. It’s almost not right to say who’s better. If you tried to make the perfect rivalry, we were it.”
4. Ivan Lendl defeats John McEnroe 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5 – 1984 final
In his 2002 autobiography Serious, John McEnroe openly admits that there are few events that haunt him as much as his 1984 French Open final defeat to Ivan Lendl. As McEnroe laments of the match: “Lendl got his first major, and I took his title, choker-in-chief, away from him.”
McEnroe, 25, entered the match in the form of his life, having begun 1984 with 42 straight wins. It was a record start to a year that stands to this day, and meant the American, who already had five majors to his name, was the red hot favourite to pick up his first French Open title.
His opponent, the 24-year-old Czech Lendl was tennis’s perennial bridesmaid. The nearly man, the choker. He had reached four slam finals and lost them all – an unwanted sequence since equalled by his former protege Andy Murray.
It was little surprise then when McEnroe cruised through the first two sets 6-3, 6-2 to leave Lendl staring at the prospect of losing his first five slam finals.
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Fortunately for the Czech, McEnroe had one glaring weakness: his temperament. In a manner that Murray fans will identify with, McEnroe could become enraged by something seemingly innocuous. Early on in the third set, the whirring of a cameraman’s headset set him off and soon after McEnroe was in full meltdown mode. He berated the cameraman for causing him to lose his focus, and all of a sudden he had lost the third set 6-4 and was up against a crowd now fiercely in favour of Lendl.
Despite their taunting, McEnroe led 4-2 in the fourth, but his energy was being sapped by the burning French sun and Lendl roared back to pinch it 7-5 and take the match into a decider. From there the Czech grew in confidence and took the final set 7-5 as McEnroe grappled unsuccessfully with the inner demons that had taken hold.
After the match, which had lasted 4 hours and 8 minutes, McEnroe was so incandescent with rage at the crowd and himself that he refused to give an on-court interview. The defeat was one of just three losses in 85 matches for McEnroe that year and stung him more than almost any other setback in his career.
After breaking his grand slam duck, Lendl ended his career with eight slams, one more than McEnroe.
3. Rafael Nadal defeats Novak Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7, (3-7), 9-7 – 2013 semi-final
Nadal won 70 of his first 71 matches at Roland Garros, and surely none were as dramatic as the semi-final four years ago against his great rival Novak Djokovic, which is amazingly one of only two five-setters that the Spaniard has ever played at Roland Garros.
Nadal was the tournament holder and seven-time French Open champion, but his ranking was down at No 4 after a horrible run of injuries. Djokovic, as the Australian Open champion and world No 1, was the man to beat, though Nadal’s clay-court pedigree made the Spaniard the favourite in many people’s eyes.
The pair had met in the previous year’s French Open, with Nadal winning in four sets, and 18 months earlier Djokovic had edged a bruising six-hour long epic in the Australian Open final. In total this was the 35th meeting between two players who had between them won 10 of the previous 12 majors.
A great deal was expected of what was a de facto final – the winner was to face David Ferrer or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – and no-one on a broiling Paris afternoon was left disappointed.
After splitting the first two sets, Nadal romped through the third 6-1, whipping that lasso-like forehand and not allowing Djokovic to settle into a rhythm. The Spaniard looked on course for a four-sets win but failed to serve out the match at 6-5 up, and after Djokovic nicked the tie-break, the players headed into a decider.
As the temperature cranked up and the match headed for its fifth hour, Djokovic began to edge what was becoming a war of attrition, and grabbed an early break in the final set. The Serb held the break all the way to 4-3, but he made the grave error at deuce of unnecessarily touching the net after hitting a winning smash and thereby forefeited the point. Nadal broke back that game, and held his nerve to tough out the decider 9-7.
The memories of losing that Melbourne final were still raw for Nadal, and he said afterwards: “I was ready for the fight and had a little bit of luck at 4-3. In Australia in 2012 it was similar but he won. Everybody knows Novak is a fighter. That’s why this is a special sport. During [my] seven months out there were a lot of low moments but people supported me, made me work hard every day, and I want to thank them for that.”
Nadal cruised to his eighth title two days later by thumping David Ferrer in the final, while Djokovic would have to wait until 2016 before finally getting his hands on the Coupe des Mousquetaires.
2. Steffi Graf defeats Martina Hingis 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 – 1999 Final
The 1999 final was a fractious, ill-tempered encounter that pitted the old against the new. Steffi Graf had dominated the women’s Tour in the 1990s until injuries and the emergence of the ‘Swiss Miss’ Martina Hingis knocked her off her perch in 1997.
A 16-year-old Hingis hoovered up three of the four slams that year to take the No 1 ranking from Graf, who by 1999 was 29 and playing in her final year on the Tour. Hingis had dismissed Graf as past her best a year earlier, and now the two came head to head in Paris for Graf’s final match at Roland Garros.
Hingis, 18, needed the French Open to complete the career Grand Slam, and having won five grand slams in the previous couple of years, including the Australian Open that January, was the favourite to win the final. Graf for her part had not won a major since 1996 and had admitted she was mainly using the tournament as a way of improving her fitness ahead of one last crack at an eighth Wimbledon title.
For the first set and a bit, Hingis was in control. She took the opener 6-4 and was up 2-0 when it all began to unravel. The French crowd were already heavily behind the five-time Roland Garros champion Graf when Hingis crossed tennis’s equivalent of the Rubicon, by walking over to the other side of the court to dispute a forehand that was called out.
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The whistles and cat-calls were deafening as the supporters reacted to what they saw as another example of Hingis’s preening precocity. Hingis was so enraged that she called the tournament referee onto the court, all the while grinning disingenuously with increasingly simmering menace. It was little wonder that she had been nicknamed the “smiling assassin”.
Not only did Hingis not get the overrule she wanted, she was given a point penalty for crossing the net, and found herself down 30-0 in a game she felt she should have been 15-0 up in.
The rest of the second set undulated with breaks for each player, before Hingis found herself serving for the match at 5-4 against not just one of the greatest players of all time, but also an increasingly vicious crowd. Graf broke back and took the set 7-5, before romping to a 5-2 lead in the decider.
In an act of desperation, Hingis served under-arm when down match point, and the surprise tactic worked to keep her in the match. The crowd roared their disapproval, and when Hingis complained at their heckling Graf retorted: ”Can we just play tennis, O.K?”
After Graf took the title on her second match point as the match clock showed 2 hours 25 minutes, Hingis left the court and had to be led back on in tears by her mother Melanie Molitor. When asked about the crowd afterwards, Hingis admitted that ”I let it get to me.” She pledged to not stop until she had won the French Open, but was never able to get her hands on the title or reach another Paris final.
Graf made good on her promise to retire at the end of the year, and the 1999 French Open would turn out to be her 22nd and final grand slam singles title.
1. Michael Chang defeats Ivan Lendl, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 – 1989 Fourth Round
As well as being one of the most extraordinary matches in the history of tennis, Michael Chang’s 1989 French Open fourth-round match against Ivan Lendl also featured one of its most memorable moments.
Leading 4-3 in the final set but down 15-30 and suffering severe cramps, Chang took the almost unprecedented step of serving under-arm. The reaction from everyone on the Philippe Chatrier court is sensational. The commentator laughs in disbelief and shouts “extraordinaire…ooh la la!” as the crowd cover their mouths in astonishment at what they have just seen. The former American player Todd Martin later described Chang’s underhand serve as “the last stone that felled Goliath”.
The tactic flummoxed Lendl, and Chang won the point and the match two games later.
It was a fitting end to a remarkable match that had seen the world No 1 and three-time French Open champion Lendl upset by the 17-year-old naturalised American who was playing for only the second time at Roland Garros.
Lendl by contrast was the reigning Australian Open champion, the world’s No 1 for almost all of the previous three years and a seven-time major winner. A baseline behemoth, Lendl had not dropped a set all tournament and looked set for a seventh straight French Open quarter-final when he took a two sets to love lead against Chang.
Chang though had also been in excellent form in the tournament, winning his previous nine sets for the loss of 17 games, and despite his tender years he did already have some pedigree. He was the 15th seed at the tournament and had won an ATP Tournament the year before in San Francisco.
Against Lendl, he was given additional motivation by the possibility of bringing hope to his homeland of China. Only a day earlier, Chang had spent the day glued to television screens horrified at images of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. He later admitted that: “What [the Lendl match] was really about was an opportunity to bring a smile upon Chinese people’s faces around the world when there wasn’t a whole lot to smile about. I honestly feel that that was God’s purpose for allowing me to be able to get through those matches.”
From two sets to love down, Chang started to frustrated his illustrious opponent. After the 17-year-old had taken the third set with a beguiling mix of awkward spins and angles, Lendl began to rage at the conditions and what he perceived to be bad line calls. His anger cost him a penalty point and a game in the fourth set.
But when severe cramps struck Chang in the fourth set, a victory for Lendl looked a formality. Still, his opponent would not go away though, employing a befuddling tactic of slow, arcing moonballs that drove Lendl to distraction and saw Chang take the fourth set 6-3.
Into a decider, and the pain became too much for Chang. In the third game of the set, he could not move and had resorted to guzzling water and consuming bananas at an alarming rate. He could not even sit down at change of ends, such was the all-consuming pain of the cramp he was suffering.
At 2-1 up he walked to the service box to retire from the match, but at that point he claims to have benefitted from divine intervention. He later recalled: “When I got to the service line, I got an unbelievable conviction of heart. Looking back, I really feel like it was the Lord kind of telling me: ‘Michael, what do you think you’re doing here?’ If I quit once, the second, third, fourth or fifth time that I am faced with that kind of circumstance, that kind of difficulty, I’m going to quit again.”
Four games later, Chang employed the under-arm serve trick as one last throw of the dice. He remembers: “At 15-30, spur of the moment, I was just like, I’m going to throw an underhand serve in here, cause I’m not doing anything off my first serve anyways. Let’s see if maybe I can scrape a point. I hit the underhand serve, Ivan was kind of surprised about it, moved, kind of got squeezed in because of the spin and had to come in because the serve was so short. I hit a passing shot, clipped the tape and it went off the top of his racket and the crowd went absolutely nuts.”
In the final game, there was time for one last party piece as Chang slowly walked forward to the service line on match point as Lendl prepared to serve. It drew a double fault, and Chang has somehow done it. After four hours and 37 minutes of the most excruciating competition, Chang had completed the equivalent of a tennis ultra-marathon and defeated the world No 1.
He went on to beat Stefan Edberg in the final as he claimed his one and only grand slam title.